Art vs. Design: Are They the Same Thing?

Every project is created by design. It is thought out, analyzed and finally, designed and executed.

But is every design project also a work of art? How similar (or different) are the processes and results? You may find that every designer or artist has a different definition. Here I will share my characteristics of each. (Feel free to agree with or even challenge me.)

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A Little Background


I am a designer. My background is in print but these days I am working more and more on the web. The projects I take on vary dramatically – from things for my full-time employer to freelance work. I solve problems everyday by cobbling together bits into a final product that showcases information in a visual way.

I am not an artist. I can’t draw a straight line. Don’t ask me how to paint (unless it is a wall) or put together mixed media pieces. Even my stick figures are sad.

But there are some days where the work I do, is considered more than just an image on the screen or page. Someone calls it a work of art. I am not so sure I believe it but it did get me thinking. Am I both a designer and an artist?

To me, art and design each have a set of defining characteristics. And then there are all those things in between – projects and pieces that seem to exemplify both. This I call “artistic design.” And it is that gray area where I would say most of the work by graphic designers is classified.

What Is Art?



  • Art has an emotional context.
  • Art sparks questions (sometimes without answers) in those who look at it.
  • Art has varied meanings that can be different based on a person’s experiences and emotions.
  • Artistic ability is a talent that a person is born with. It can be cultivated and refined but part of the ability is innate.
  • Art is created for the artist. Much of an artist’s work is created and then displayed or sold. The process is free-flowing and organic.
  • Art is often an individual sport.
  • Art has meaning but is seldom usable.

What Is Design?



  • Design must be comprehended and understood.
  • Design projects aim to solve problems or provide information.
  • Design communicates a distinct message. Whether it is information (as in the instance of graphic design) or function, design is a communication device.
  • Good design will engage a person to do something – such as sit in a comfortably-designed chair – or display a direct message.
  • Design can be taught and learned. Think of all the graphic design schools out there. Often many of the same people who have that born artistic ability are drawn to design as well but you don’t have to be an artist to succeed as a designer.
  • Design projects are created for a client or purpose. How many times has someone told you to just do a project and they will take it?
  • Design projects are planned and “designed” before the first but of actual graphic work is ever done.
  • Design projects have an audience in mind.
  • Design is collaborative.
  • Each design project has a purpose or usefulness.

Artistic Design



Then there is that world where art and design collide. (This is the realm where most successful projects live.)

Artistic design encapsulates creativity, feeling, question and answer, and newness. Artistic design is both inspiring and motivating. Many designers will look at another’s work and want to jumpstart a project of their own.

“You need the creativity and free-flowing thought that comes with the artistic process and the direction and collaboration of design.”

Art and design, when speaking of visual projects, are inseparable parts of the big picture. You need the creativity and free-flowing thought that comes with the artistic process and the direction and collaboration of design. Together these things will help you create something unique and fresh that hopefully connects to a person’s intellect and emotions.

There is not a definitive right or wrong when thinking about art and design. Further it is even harder to qualify what makes something “good” or “bad.” As a designer, much of what is published sees the light of day because it was in line with the client wanted. It fell in line with their style and their message.

What makes design or art good is often a matter of opinion. There are a few key elements that are more defined – attention to details, alignment with color theory and principles or use of text – but generally how well a project is received (and liked) is simply a matter of taste.


I consider myself a designer but would never call myself an artist. I have peers though who use the terms interchangeably. Neither of us is really wrong.

Art, and design, are in the eye of the beholder. You can find beauty and art in design all the time. You can find a well-executed design project that is artful. So take a minute before you judge, and allow art and design to coexist.

Do you consider yourself an artist, designer or both? Let us know.

Image Sources: hannes.a.schwetz, Ed Yourdon, juhansonin and Jordanhill School D&T Dept.